December 3, 2007 / 4:01 AM / 11 years ago

Venezuela's triumphant opposition faces long road

CARACAS (Reuters) - Bigger and bolder, Venezuela’s opposition has gained on President Hugo Chavez for the first time in years with a vote win that stops him grabbing new powers but it has a long way to go to halt his socialist revolution.

Opposition groups scored a David-versus-Goliath victory in Sunday’s referendum on a string of reforms that would have allowed the anti-U.S. leader to stand for reelection indefinitely and push ahead in his assault on capitalism.

It was Chavez’s first defeat at the polls since he swept to power in 1998, and a succession of politicians basked in their triumph on Monday with long televised speeches in praise of Venezuelans’ democratic spirit.

But Chavez still has firm control over the military, Congress and the OPEC member’s state oil company, and the opposition newspaper Tal Cual was quick to point out how daunting a task it will be to make him change course.

“We have so far to go my friend, so far to go,” read a political cartoon that showed two ragged, thirsty men trudging through a barren desert.

Although Chavez activated a powerful, state-backed electoral machine in support of his reforms, the “No” camp narrowly won with 51 percent of the vote.

Now the loose coalition of political parties, university students and civic groups will try to put aside old rivalries, agree on a leadership and develop a political platform to challenge the former paratrooper.

“There is political capital, human capital in this vote that we should use to get organized,” Ricardo Sanchez, a student leader, said on Monday.

The victory boosted the credibility of a fledgling university student movement that has brought new faces to an opposition long dominated by fractured parties associated with a pre-Chavez political order that was widely seen as corrupt.

The movement first surfaced when Chavez shut down an opposition television station in May and re-emerged to defy him in sometimes violent street protests over his proposed reforms, which included wider powers to expropriate private property and censor the media in times of political “emergencies”.

NO LONGER INVINCIBLE

The defection of longtime allies who denounced Chavez’s reforms as authoritarian has also broadened the opposition’s appeal.

“This heartens the opposition to keep organizing a unified front,” said David Scott Palmer, a political science professor at Boston University. “But the next stage is harder. They still have to define themselves as something more than just anti-Chavistas.”

Chavez has easily won almost yearly elections in his nine years of rule but failed to sell the reforms to moderate supporters, shattering his image of electoral invincibility. Without a constitutional overhaul, the man who says he wants to lead Venezuela for decades will have to step down in 2013.

The vote also showed the opposition it is capable of winning in poor areas where his heavy spending of oil income on social programs has made his leadership largely uncontested.

“The president wanted to force Venezuelans to accept a project that was his. This change was not proposed by the people,” said Raul Baduel, an ex-defense minister who rescued Chavez from a botched 2002 coup but broke with him this year.

Still, opposition parties will have to overcome years of bickering that has led to repeated failures, including national strikes and the ill-fated coup.

They have so far been unable to present an attractive alternative to the well-endowed social programs that underpin Chavez’s popularity. Nor do they have a leader immediately capable of challenging the firebrand president.

“The opposition camp is still quite fragmented and lacks a leader that could unify the divided opposition ranks and mount a successful challenge to the government,” said Alberto Ramos, a senior economist with Goldman Sachs.

(For more on Venezuela's referendum, click here)

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray

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